A funny thing happened at London’s O2 Arena last night: the Stones played and it was no longer about the bump in your trousers but the lump in your throat.
Keith has said that a tour will surely follow, but this second of a handful of arena shows either side of the Atlantic suggested they’re hedging their bets. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to hold up. Maybe the irresistible force of Mick’s passion for box office megabucks would stall against the immovable object of the longest, deepest recession since Bill Wyman was a baby.
Either way, this could be the last impression they ever make, a legacy of remembrance which couldn’t be chanced to land on the debit side of how we, the world, sum up the band in the final reckoning.
Many is the time on stage when Mick has had to do the work of four men, as an over-refreshed Keith would busk it in, joined in the sloppiness stakes by his eager apprentice Ronnie; Charlie, meanwhile, who follows Keith as he lays down the beat, would sigh and resign himself to two hours of phoned-in skin-bashing before he’d be allowed back to the hotel to sketch his bed.
Tonight was different: instead of kicking around the Stones’ songbook like an old tin can while striking piratical poses, Keith and Ronnie handled the songs like family heirlooms, fastidiously careful not to drop them. For the first few numbers — Get Off Of My Cloud, I Wanna Be Your Man, The Last Time — they studiously applied themselves to their Telecasters with admirable proficiency.
But as the set progressed, the band started to swing, the 71-year-old Charlie visibly and audibly growing stronger, more limber. By Midnight Rambler with Mick Taylor (who appears to have eaten the sylph-like boy of 1969 with fries to go) playing a sizzling cameo, the joint was really rocking.
Indeed, all the cameos were a pleasure: Bill Wyman, 76, was sharp and together; Eric Clapton mercifully left his tastefulness at the door in a stops-out Champagne And Reefer; and Florence Welch took the Merry Clayton part in Gimme Shelter, a sex-bomb siren blending equal parts Patti Scialfa and a young Bonnie Raitt and so mercifully bringing none of her annoying baggage to the party whatsoever.
I should be clear: instrumentally, the Stones never achieved the out-of-body lift-off of 1969, ’72 or ’73, or that one time in the previous seven I’d seen them back in ’95 when their no-frills set at the Brixton Academy delivered something close to the Stones show of my dreams. But back then the Stones were crazy kids of 52. Today, with Mick turning 70 next birthday, would you bet on another worldwide shlep?
Actually, in Mick’s case, maybe you would. Keith and Charlie looked like old soldiers at the Cenotaph, as ramrod straight and dutiful as their creaking joints allowed. But Mick? Well, Mick was something else. The hair may be a glorious work of fiction, but two hours of dancing and full-throated singing (no lip-sync)? No, that can’t be faked.
So what did it all add up to? Mick has always sneered at Stones nostalgists while milking them for every last penny, and Keith has too often kidded himself that if he’s having a good time then everyone’s having a good time, even if what makes him feel good makes what he plays sound bad. But tonight both were on their best behaviour. Mick suddenly seemed to care about the past represented by the songs and the times they soundtracked, acknowledging in the care and enthusiasm of his performance that real memories, real feelings have been invested in those songs by millions of people, and that he has a duty of care to honour that emotional investment. And when he sings You Can’t Always Get What You Want, you sense that he too is thinking back to the Chelsea Drugstore with a pang. Ditto Keith and Before You Make Me Run and Happy, songs sung with a commitment that honoured the younger man he was when he wrote them and the raffish romance of knockabout freedom they’ve embodied ever since.
So farewell, boys. I fear that this really is the last time. I’d dialled down how much I cared about you during the megatour decades, but last night changed something. I’m missing you already.
Get Off of My Cloud